Descending a narrow staircase to the first of two lower levels in downtown San Diego's five-story Central Library, two visitors enter a catacomb-like storage area housing a vast collection of publications generally closed off to the public. The temperature below is strikingly cool (to assist with paper preservation) and a subtly sweet odor of aging leather binding permeates the atmosphere. Shelved here, within a mind-boggling labyrinth of aisles, is the vast majority of the facility's circulating and reference materials-all part and parcel of the main library's total 3,298,869 holdings-sitting in near total obscurity.
“The real problem with this is you can't have a browsing experience in this library,” our guide, librarian Catherine Greene tells us. “You can have better browsing experience at Borders than you can here because what's on the shelf upstairs is stuff that is either very important-valued as an authoritative source-or very popular. The rest of the collection is down here.”
The environment resembles a bibliophile's dream as Greene leads us through the long, dark corridors-past endless books, newspapers wrapped in brown paper and twine, tens of thousands of periodicals, unwieldy atlases, topographical maps sequestered in drawers and all manner of crumbling, wizened tomes.
Greene emphasizes that the massive shelves devoted to such subjects as religion, philosophy, psychology, fiction and biographies should ideally be available as browsing collections readers can explore and discover.
“Take a look down these aisles. These are all materials you can't get your hands on,” she says. “People don't know they want a book on psychocybernetics until they see it.”
The only way, in fact, to currently access most of the materials we're viewing is for a patron to come in knowing what they want, request a specific title and have it retrieved by staff from these lower levels.
Motioning toward rows filled chock-a-block with magazines dating back to the 1800s, Greene says, “We now have more circulating books down here because we don't have any room upstairs. The priority is to throw out magazines and get them in a microform, and keep the books. People don't want to read digital books.”
Descending another, poorly lit staircase to the library's bottom-most level, we enter a new netherworld of seemingly limitless information, where shadow-filled corridors span a subterranean course that extends from Eighth to Ninth streets. Also highly in evidence: a veritable obstacle course of boxes filled with donated books and piles of chairs stacked helter-skelter throughout the bookshelves.
“In order to shelve books up there, we've had to bring furniture down,” Greene explains. “When you come upstairs, there are lots and lots of bookcases, but very few places for people to sit down.”
Perhaps pointing out the obvious, Greene comments that the only people who have signed up for tours of the library's lower levels-which have run twice a week throughout June and will continue on the first Saturday of every month-are those who really like libraries. She also reveals some of what she considers the most significant discoveries staff have found-often by chance-in long-forgotten books.
Examples of what Greene terms “primary sources at their best”: a collection of original U.S. government documents printed in 1789, including George Washington's inaugural speech; an 1876 U.S. Patent Office report, with listings for Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison and their respective telegraphs; and a mottled, two-volume edition of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language from 1785.
“It's amazing that this is just sitting around on the shelf-none of this stuff is facsimile,” Greene says. “[Once] I was weeding down here-seeing what books have circulated last, whether we should toss them or whatever-and I found an autobiography of Louisa May Alcott that she had signed.... Who knows what else is down here.”
Back up on the main floor, Greene finalizes the tour with a quick look at the open-to-the-public Wangenheim Room, a collection donated to the library by an eponymous family who had achieved great local prominence in the 19th century. Greene describes them as “international travelers who really had a wild aficionado for the books” and left “a large intellectual legacy in San Diego.”
What captures my attention most here is the miniature book collection, which features a copy of the world's smallest book in a published edition-the subject of which I've often pondered. It turns out to be a 2.4mm-by-2.99mm ABC picture-book, published in Leipzig by German typographer Josua Reichert, which, although displayed encased within a magnifying glass, still looks like a tiny speck of nothing.
I mention that this impossibly small volume should be safe from the menace of an anonymous serial Exacto-knife wielder who, according to Greene, has plagued the library's reference section for several years by cutting out entire sections of rare books-sometimes even leaving behind blood-stained pages.
“For a while he was just doing the Jesus entries in religious encyclopedias and stuff,” Greene says. “I hope he never takes a tour down below.”